How To Replace Denial And Other Defense Mechanisms With Empowering Alternatives

Updated December 8, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

At one time or another, we all may experience denial. In these instances, we may not want to accept the truth of a situation. There are a variety of reasons for this response, and the important thing to know is that denial is usually not the best way to resolve something bothering us. In fact, denying an issue can create additional challenges in our lives. If you're struggling with being in denial and managing its impacts on your life, know that you're not alone. There are ways to move from denial to acceptance at a pace that is right for you.

Get To The Root Of Negative Recurring Cycles

What Is Denial?

We all develop different coping mechanisms – both healthy and unhealthy -- to help us deal with a variety of circumstances in our lives. When a coping mechanism is unhealthy, it becomes difficult for us to address our real issues or make desired changes in our behavior.

Denial psychology is built around understanding denial as a coping mechanism, along with the way it impacts us and our relationships. According to Merriam-Webster, denial psychology is a "defense mechanism in which confrontation with a personal problem or with reality is avoided by denying the existence of the problem or reality."

To understand how denial is used as a defense mechanism, let's start by looking at what defense mechanisms are and how people use them in their everyday lives. 

Denial - A Primary Defense Mechanism

Psychology has identified denial as the primary defense mechanism that most people use to cope with highly stressful situations. It often involves blocking external events from conscious awareness. Essentially, if a situation is too much for someone to handle, they may refuse to experience it at all. That doesn't make the facts or the reality of the situation go away, but it allows the person to pretend that it isn't real, therefore reducing its impact on them. At least, one may perceive that the impact is reduced.

Often, people develop unconscious defense mechanisms to address contradictions in their lives. In managing the various demands of their careers, relationships, and personal lives, it can be easy for someone to feel threatened or overwhelmed, which is a precursor to anxiety. As a result, the human body and brain can create defense mechanisms like denial to help people cope with uncomfortable feelings like anxiety and guilt.

While denial might reduce someone’s anxiety in the short term, eventually, the reality of the circumstances will kick in, and it may be more difficult to manage the issue at that point. 

Consider, for example, disordered eating. Someone may engage in bingeing and purging cycles and believe that they are in control. They may deny the reasons that compel them to engage in bingeing and purging. If this goes on for a long time, they may eventually come to find that they have a much harder time abstaining from bingeing and purging. 

In other scenarios, someone may deny their role in a situation or blame someone else for their behavior. Avoiding situations or assigning blame can hurt relationships in the long run, so denial is likely to cause more problems than it solves over time.

How Denial Can Negatively Impact One’s Choices

While denial may seem like an easier choice in the moment, the reality is that it can cause people to develop maladaptive behaviors and unhealthy relationships. It can lead someone to engage in unhealthy behaviors or allow a bad situation or relationship to continue.

Many people don't realize that they’re in a state of denial until a situation has gotten out of control. Someone who finds themselves involved in a similar set of bad circumstances repeatedly may be in denial as to the reasons why. For example, a person could find themselves navigating bad relationships or repeatedly making choices that put them in a similarly bad situation.

Denial can also influence people to abdicate responsibility for their choices, leaving them free to blame others while making the same bad choices over and over. It is common for people to reach the point where they’re ready for a change, and that means getting honest about their thoughts, feelings, actions, and choices.It can be hard for someone to recognize when they’re in a state of denial. Here are some ways people can recognize when they might be using denial as a defense mechanism.

Notice Recurring Negative Themes

Look for themes in your life. Are you finding yourself in a series of harmful or unhealthy relationships? Do you endure the negative consequences of addictive behavior regularly? These questions can help you analyze the choices you’re making, for you might be creating an environment that fosters negative consequences.

You could also be using denial – perhaps inadvertently – to convince yourself that you’re helpless when really, you have the freedom to make different choices. If you notice this pattern, then it might be worth consulting with a licensed therapist to address your choices, denial, and recurrent behaviors.

Notice When You Blame Others

Have you ever used the phrase, "All [insert adjective] people are [negative quality]"? The problem with a phrase like this is that it allows you to deny your role in a given situation. While humans are naturally self-involved thinkers, the reality is that the whole world probably isn't conspiring against you and your relationships.

It might be time to get honest with yourself and ask how you've contributed to a difficult or upsetting situation. Your actions do have weight, and they impact you as well as others. Blame allows you to shift the responsibility for your actions to someone else or a group of individuals, but it doesn't help you solve the problem at hand.

Take note when you use superlative language to describe the cause of your circumstances. Superlative language includes phrases like “This is the worst!” or “nobody care about me.” This language can be a sign that you may be denying or ignoring the way your actions are impacting your circumstances. After all, you are the common denominator in all your difficult situations.

Pay Attention To The Company You Keep

When you're surrounded by individuals who think the way you do, it can be easy to deny reality because your social circle may be reinforcing your denial. This is because they may see the world through a similar lens. 

For example, it may be more challenging to overcome an addiction to narcotics if you are constantly around others who use them as a coping mechanism. It can be difficult to take accountability for your role in your own unhappiness if you spend your time with others who refuse to take ownership for their actions. Have you heard the saying that we are a combination of the five people we spend the most time with in our lives? While research has not confirmed this, it may be worthwhile to examine how our closest companions influence us, for the better or worse.

How To Stop Using Denial As A Defense Mechanism

A potentially useful way to disrupt cycles of denial is to spend time with people who think differently than you do. Allow them to challenge your thinking on various issues and be willing to examine your assumptions and opinions. You might find yourself asking different questions about a situation or considering facts you've been ignoring because they didn't fit into your version of reality.

Additionally, you might practice grounding yourself. There are several grounding techniques you can use to seat yourself firmly in the real world while quelling anxiety. If you need additional support, anin-person or online therapist can help you move past denial.. In most therapy settings, denial is seen as an obstacle to healing, growing, or making any significant progress, but there are ways to get past it.

Get To The Root Of Negative Recurring Cycles

Working with a therapist, you can develop healthy behaviors and coping mechanisms to address your life circumstances, like meditating, building a new support system, practicing gratitude, or consciously rephrasing language that may convince you of a lack of agency in a challenging situation. Additionally, you can gain valuable insight into your thought processes and behaviors, so you can work with them more intentionally.

With BetterHelp, you can find a licensed online therapist familiar with denial psychology to help you address your denial. You, too, can develop healthier, more effective ways to handle anxiety, guilt, stress, or other uncomfortable or overwhelming emotions. You can meet with your therapist when it’s most convenient for you and in the comfort of your own home. 

A therapist may use an approach like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help people overcome their denial tendencies. Essentially, the aim of CBT is to empower people to help themselves in difficult situations. A therapist can do this by teaching people how to use different tools and techniques in place of harmful or counterproductive defense mechanisms (like denial).

Studies have shown that online CBT is effective in treating various mental health conditions and their associated symptoms (like stress, guilt, or addictive behaviors). BetterHelp will match you with a therapist who has expertise in the area where you need assistance. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues with denial.

Counselor Reviews

"Sharon Valentino has helped me through so much! Since we started working together, just a few months ago, I already feel like I have more power and control over my life. I have let go of some very painful things, I have moved away from abusive relationships and really gained the skills and tools I need to keep myself safe and happy. She has taught me that I have the power to control my thoughts, my anxiety, and most of all my company. I really like how direct she is; it helps me get grounded and connected to myself. I can't wait to see where I am after working with her a year!!!"

"Amy has been very insightful, offering the right series of skills to help me take control of my own thinking and emotions. She is supportive and always responds from a place of reflection and non-judgment, which gives me greater insight into how to solve my own problems better, rather than stress further. Highly recommend her to anyone, especially if you're feeling "stuck" in life's patterns."


Denial can be a tricky thing to overcome. It can be hard to admit our own role in fueling negative cycles in our lives. It can be equally challenging to distance ourselves from people and contexts that may be reinforcing our negative inner dialogue. You can take ownership of your life with the right tools. Take the first step today.

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